Cody Minyard is an OK Policy intern and a political science senior at the University of Oklahoma. He is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
During this legislative session, the projected deficit has reached $1.3 billion. Without solutions that bring in substantial new revenue to ease budget woes, we are facing deep cuts to schools and state agencies. Many Oklahomans are bearing the brunt of this budget crisis, but one specific group we should be concerned about are Oklahoma’s veterans. Large numbers of veterans face the possibility of seeing their benefits drastically reduced by state budget cuts.
The Oklahoma Department of Veteran Affairs has a budget of approximately $140 million, $35 million of which comes from state appropriations. The Department’s funding from the state had already been cut 13 percent compared to 2009 levels, and Oklahoma’s mid-year revenue failures brought an additional 7 percent reduction. Deputy Director Douglas Elliott said the cuts meant they would have to provide less training for nurses and nurses assistants, as well as delay structural repairs and upgrades to Oklahoma’s Veterans Affairs facilities. Elliott also said further cuts could force them to lay off as many as 240 workers.
Threats to veterans services aren’t limited to the VA. As of 2013, 7.6 percent of the 312,492 veterans in Oklahoma had incomes less than $15,000, just below the federal poverty line for a household of two. Since only 37 percent of veterans receive care from the VA nationwide, these veterans with very low-incomes rely on services like Soonercare, mental health programs, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) — but the providers of these services are all facing deep cuts in Oklahoma that lead to reduction in treatment or long delays in providing benefits.
With only a few weeks left in the legislative session, there has not been any substantive policy proposals that could protect veterans services from more cuts. While a bill authored by Representative Dustin Roberts and Senator Frank Simpson to increase the access of disabled veterans to property tax exemptions was signed into law, it pales in comparison to the deep cuts to the Office of Disability Concerns, which is down 32.6 percent even before mid-year cuts. With mental health and substance abuse services being cut by $27 million from 2009 to 2016, and the refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars that would extend coverage to over 48 percent of uninsured veterans, those veterans who struggle to obtain adequate health care and other services are unlikely to get the help they need next year. Oklahoma’s huge gaps in mental health funding are especially damaging when nearly 1 in 5 suicides is a veteran.
The bottom line is that we all owe a debt to our veterans, yet as budget challenges persist many elected officials are requiring veterans to make another sacrifice. With funding for services that are important to veterans already near the lowest in the nation, further cuts could have devastating consequences. Although there are common sense solutions to bring in new revenue for these services, legislators need to show the political will to take that step. If we don’t invest real funding to back up our rhetoric about “supporting the troops”, we do a disservice to our veterans.